Skip to main content


Old Hat

Winter 1999 | Volume 14 |  Issue 3

MICHAEL HARRIS TAKES OUT WHAT APPEARS TO be an opera hat made of ebony, pearl, and nickel, inserts a three-by-five-inch paper card under its hinged lid, and places it on my head. The vertical bars around the hat’s sides push out to exactly fit my skull. Then he snaps the lid shut. He takes the hat off my head, opens the lid, and removes the card and shows it to me. It now has holes punched in it that represent the exact dimensions of my head. My head is shaped, to my mild dismay, like a foot.

“This device is a conformator,” Harris says. He speaks very gently, like a religious man. “It was invented in France around 1850, when they started making derbies, which had to exactly match the head. It was made around 1920. Since the demise of the hat business earlier in this century, any supplies like this that you need you have to already have, search in antique stores for, or else wait for old hatters to die.”

Harris is an extreme rarity, a hatter who isn’t old. He owns and runs Paul’s Hat Works, on Geary Boulevard in San Francisco, which has been in business since 1918 and which he has operated since 1980. “The conformator is the first step in making a truly fine hat for someone,” he says. “I’ll keep that card in my files for life. Then I can use the formeleon to read the card to make a hat for you.” The formeleon looks almost exactly like the conformator; it reverses the process.

Harris’s storefront shop is crowded with odd old things, racks of hundreds of wooden hat blocks and brim forms from a century and more ago, obscure wooden hand tools, stacks of antique hatboxes, and even a cash register from before they had numbered keys. “That,” Harris explains, “was made in 1885. The greatest amount it can handle is $4.95. It was here in the shop when I took over.”

Who becomes a fine hatter when such a thing barely exists anymore? “If someone had told me thirty years ago that I’d be doing this,” Harris says, “Fd have told him he had been in the sun too long. I am a painter. I paint the lands and seas of California, and before that I was a sign painter. I had to wear hats and caps for protection, and they were always falling apart. I discovered I couldn’t buy a well-made hat, so I tried to understand how they’re made. I got kicked out of every hat shop asking questions, and I started buying secondhand hats and cutting them apart. I learned that good ribbon has no nylon thread, that better hats have no polyester in the brim, that cheap leather turns to barnacle over time. After ten years or so some of the old-timers finally started talking to me. It was very humbling. At every level you know you’ve just scratched the surface.

“It’s a very secretive business. I worked for nine years as a production hatter, behind closed doors in more of a factory situation, before I could get an apprenticeship here.”

Harris makes hats out of the two classic materials: felt and straw. “Most felt hats today,” he says, “have wool and paste in them. True felt is fur only, from the bellies of water animals or the backs of land animals. Good felts are seldom made in the United States anymore. And good straw is hard to find even in Ecuador. I go down there to seek out hat bodies—which they take ten months to weave—that haven’t been bleached. They chlorinate the straw to make it white, and it loses its tensile strength.”

He puts a finger to my face at eye level. “If you draw a line across your face there, a hat should duplicate above what your chin line does below. The brim width follows your girth and stature.” He takes a block down off the wall. It is a solid oak bowl darkened with age and contact with many felts over time. “Some of these blocks were Paul’s; others are the culmination of twenty-eight years of gleaning from men’s hat shops as they went out of business.

“This tollicker is probably 110 years old,” he says, showing me what looks like a softly curved wooden hot pepper with an ear; it is used to form the proper edge around the outside of a brim. “A major part of my job is getting the best felt and straw hat bodies I can, and the other part is using these old tools to make the best hats out of them. My least expensive hat is only two hundred dollars, but people will wait a year for a three-thousand-dollar hat. A felt hat should be firm and velvety and have such a tight, even felt that any liquid will sit on the surface rather than penetrate. You can roll or fold the brim in your hand and it will never wrinkle.

“Hatting is supposed to be the oldest commercial business on earth. It never started to die out until automobile roofs started to get low in the thirties. Then the price of hats doubled, and the look of a fine head of hair became fashionable. John F. Kennedy was the final blow.

“I’m trying to give the public something that could have vanished in this century. I want to show people that quality still is king.”

We hope you enjoyed this essay.

Please support America's only magazine of the history of engineering and innovation, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to Invention & Technology.


Stay informed - subscribe to our newsletter.
The subscriber's email address.